‘Sufis of Punjab’ – Building bridges across borders

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

Book: “The Sufis of Punjab”; Edited by Muzaffar Ali, Anoo C. Nayar and Syeda Bilgrami Imam, Publisher: Rumi Foundation, Price: Rs.1,895, Pages: 208

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The birth of the Punjabi literary tradition is built into Sufi mysticism, which dates back to the birth of Shaikh Faridu’d-Din, popularly known as Baba Farid, in the late 12th century.

For the last 800 years, Punjab has prided itself on a spiritual culture that believes in open worship, relying on the “holy book” and the core tenets of Sufism, secularism being its primary plank.

The anthology of essays, “The Sufis of Punjab”, traces the evolution of Sufi mysticism in the state in the context of its assimilation from local cultures, references to Sufism in the Granth Sahib and how the Sufi literature conected to the local people with concepts of love, secularism, universality, music, freedom of spirit and one god.

The hefty volume, which released Sunday, is visually opulent. It uses a combination of graphics, line sketches, illustrations, hand-painted portraits, calligraphy , sonnets and photographs arranged on a muted colourscape of beige, brown, black and red.

The volume is engaging and lucid with a festive feel that harks back to the freewheeling days of the early Sufi period when life in the northwestern frontier bustled around shrines and celebrations of faith.

The pages are leaves out of history; embellished with unusual anecdotes and facts linking Sufism to Sikhism. For beginners in the study of religion, the book comes across as a page-turner.

The editors say the book tries to build bridges across the border by highlighting a greater Sufi literary lineage that went beyond geographical boundaries of Pakistan and India.

Sufi mystics and poets then shared common home, stories and music.

Since the early Punjabi poetry was spiritual in nature – it allowed Baba Farid’s profound poetics to flower. In the 14th century, Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikh religion, distilled the Sufi, Nath and Bhakti traditions – three religious genres that influenced Punjab’s spiritual tradition – in his divine verses. Nanak even laid down the ‘raag (melody)’ in which each of these verses were to be sung. The songs came to be identified as “kirtan”- a pioneering avatar of devotional music.

The book is one of the four volumes published by Rumi Foundation. The first one documents the legacy of Hazrat Amir Khusrau while the second commemorates the 800th anniversary of Jalaluddin Rumi. The third tome, “Sufi & Rishis of Kashmir”, is a tribute to the secular Sufi poets of J&K.

“Punjab has been a vital gateway to this enormous sub-continent. It has opened minds to create ‘seekers of truth’, of those who came in and those who went out,” said filmmaker and Sufi revivalist Muzaffar Ali, chief editor of the book.

“Sikhism has gained from Sufism, an older faith. A lot of Guru Granth Sahib has Baba Farid in it,” Ali told IANS.

One of the best examples was Sufi mystic Hazrat Mian Mir, who was invited by Arjan Dev to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Arjan Dev sent a palanquin and a posse of 100 followers to fetch Mian Mir to Amritsar from Lahore.

The convoy was attacked by local king Chandu Mal, but Mian Mir escaped. He laid the foundation of the Golden Temple Jan 3, 1588.

It was also around that time that “qissa-poetry”, the ballad poems of Islamic-Punjabi, became popular among both Sufi story-tellers and the Gurmukhi musicians, who believed in “ishq (love)” both in life and in commune with god.

Love was the central theme immortalised in legendary ballads such as “Hir Siyal” — the tale of the rebellious Punjabi love born in 1425 AD.

Muzaffar Ali has just completed work on the subsequent volume – “The Sufis of Awadh” — which will be published by the end of this year.

“Like Kashmiri Sufi mystics, who were influenced by Shaivism, the Sufi poets of Awadh were inspired by Krishna-Bhakti. The ‘Sufis of Awadh’ will be published by the end of this year. It will be followed by the ‘Sufi Saints of Bengal’,” Ali said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])